Image courtesy of Nick Pant

Teaching teens real-time skills with an Unreal Bootcamp

Eric T. Elder is a media arts consultant with a background in animation. He’s worked on top TV shows such as The Simpsons as well as video games, and designs training programs and production pipelines for animation, video game, and XR production.
Eric T. Elder has been in media arts education and production for a little over thirty years. Starting out in education teaching animation in Philadelphia, he moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to work in the animation industry.

Over the course of his career, Eric has discovered a wealth of untapped potential in inner-city areas. “I see in the inner city such a disparity in education and opportunities for video games,” he says. “At the same time, there’s tremendous talent and interest in games. I’m always looking to see what I can do to balance the scales as much as possible.”

Eric found a chance to redress the balance by joining the Epic Secondary Education Advisory Board, a group of secondary teachers that supports the educational community. There, he heard about the roll out of a virtual desktop solution that enables Unreal Engine to run on Google Chromebooks. “I had been talking with the Compton Unified School District for sometime about designing a video game pathway,” he says. “It seemed like a great opportunity to put together an Unreal Bootcamp and test out the new virtual desktop, so I applied for a MegaGrant.”
Image courtesy of Compton Unified School District

A real-time technology school project

Bennie Terry III is a longtime industry veteran who has worked with Hollywood giants including Disney and Marvel. When Eric put the word out for an instructor for the bootcamp, Bennie got in touch. “I got super lucky that Bennie was interested and available,” Eric says. “He’s also from the South LA area, so it was very personal for him to be involved.”

With the Epic MegaGrant in the bag, Eric had the means to organize and design the program, fund an instructor, and get the word out to find the participants. He put together a group of high-school students, ranging in experience and aptitude, from a few different schools in the Compton Unified district.  

Over the course of the bootcamp, these students would learn their way around Unreal Engine and start to build a solid foundation of real-time skills. 

Eric needed a project to base the learning experience around, so he took the Build a Virtual Museum lesson plan and gave it a twist. “Each student built their own museum space based on reference, then inhabited the space with custom lighting and images that they chose,” he explains. “This is a great assignment to go over all the basic tools of Unreal Engine, gives them something tangible quickly—and is also fun.”
Image courtesy of Nick Pant
The students started with an overview of the game development process and how to set up a new project in the engine. Then they got to grips with basic geometry to build a room and walls to hang the images in their gallery space. Lighting and materials led onto the Blueprint visual scripting system and basic triggers. At each step, students were able to experiment and demonstrate what they were learning to make sure they understood the process. 

A stepping stone into interactive 3D careers

Eric hopes his bootcamp will be the launchpad for a new journey for the students. “I think exposure is great, but true learning and skill development requires prolonged practice and repetition,” he says. “This is a great first step, and I would love to see them build into a longer program and create their own experiences and games.”

For some of the students, this certainly seems a possibility. “I really enjoyed the whole experience—learning that everything is made from simple shapes,” says Naythen Cortez, a student from Compton Unified School District who participated in the bootcamp. “It made me want to do more. In the future, I hope we’re able to learn more about scripts.”

Enthusiasm for gaming can be a powerful driver for STEM/STEAM education. The Pew Research Center has reported that 97% of teen boys and 83% of teen girls play video games. While some of these kids will be involved in school sports and clubs, many are not. Esports are increasingly being recognised as a way to reach students who often are otherwise disengaged from the school community. 
Eric sees initiatives like his as a way to connect the e-sports popular with teens to learning paths in real-time skills. “Statistically, students engaged in e-sports and gaming are more likely to have interest in STEM/STEAM,” he says. “I think programs like this are a nice bridge between the two.”

Carrot is an organization that has long recognised this potential. It designs collaborative experiences and events to help engage youth around STEAM subjects, with e-sports one of its core programs. “The whole idea around Carrot is to give kids a prize or goal they are interested in and want to pursue, while also providing them with something that could really benefit them,” he says. “Their e-sports program has been very successful and incorporates talks, information, and education about games as a potential career—not just a pastime.”

Furnishing students with real-time skills

For educators, tapping into the wildly popular cultural phenomenon of gaming offers the prospect to engage youth in a way that is rarely possible. 

This passion can be channeled into learning the real-time skills that are set to transform the job market of the future. “There are just so many great opportunities for these young people in terms of careers for the future that are lucrative and enjoyable,” says Eric. “The demand for real-time skills will be increasing dramatically over the next several years.”

With schools waking up to this dynamic, Eric’s bootcamp looks to be the first of many. “We’ve already had requests to do another with an organization in South LA that services youth, and one with the University of Trinidad and Tobago,” he says. “We’ll also continue to work closely with Compton Unified and other interested schools and programs to expand into a more comprehensive program in the future. Stay tuned!”

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